The world in recent days has bid farewell to a queen that undoubtedly represented, for better or for worse, an iconic character of the last 70 years.

During her reign, Queen Elizabeth II witnessed and was the protagonist of striking intertwining between economics, science, tradition and politics. Here we want to recall a catastrophe that was an irrefutable demonstration of the correlation between environmental causes and health outcomes, and had consequences in the years to come.

It was the year 1952 and in the first days of December, due tothermal inversion, a black blanket enveloped London. Initially, no one seemed to care, the city sky was often gray from smog. But what happened between 5 and 9 December, it was a different case.

The winter was particularly harsh, requiring massive use of heating systems, powered by cheap coal (with high sulfur content). Furthermore, the decision had recently been taken to convert the historic electric trams to diesel ones.

The chronicles of the time tell of an apocalyptic scenario: the air began to become so dark that visibility was reduced to a few meters, surface public transport was suspended, as well as the ambulance service. Black soot entered the buildings, theatrical and sporting events were canceled. Gas masks or simple handkerchiefs were used to cover the nose and mouth.

Then the rain came to wash the air and a layer of oily dirt was deposited on the surface of streets and buildings, black, foul-smelling and irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract.

The gravity of the situation, however, only emerged in the following weeks, when casualties and hospitalizations of the days of the "Great Smog" were counted. The confirmation of the cause of death came from the analysis of the tissues taken from the lungs of the corpses, where black dust and heavy metals were found.

They esteemed 4000 casualties, but a study published in 2004 in the "Environmental Health Perspective" magazine estimates those to be 12.000, also taking into account subsequent deaths.

A few years ago a parallelism was found between the Grande Smog in London, as it was called, and some areas of China, where the problem is the presence of nitrogen dioxide[1] , a co-product of the oxidation of coal, which in these cases is diluted in the water particles of the fog, poisoning the population.

London in 1952 had a not very compact Parliament on the air pollution front and a young and inexperienced Queen Elizabeth II, only being reigning for a few months. The tragic situation, however, was not ignored! This year 5 July 1956 Queen Elizabeth II approved the Clean Air Act, a law proposed by Parliament to reduce emissions, despite initial resistance from the government, chaired by Winston Churchill. Its promoter was the Conservative MP Gerald Navarro and among other actions he envisaged: the establishment of areas with a ban on the use of fuels producing fine dust, the raising ofheight of the chimneys, the construction of new factories outside urban areas, concessions for citizens to replace heating systems in favor of electric or gas sources.

The law represented a significant act in the development of a legal framework for the protection of the environment, being then amended by the Clean Air Act of 1968 and repealed by the Clean Air Act of 1993.

How many transformations has the Queen seen! Yet, air pollution and the energy crisis continue to be "real" problems!


[1] NO2 is produced in all types of combustion (also oil and gas, not just coal) and it is harmful because it is one of the chemical precursors of ozone, which is very useful in the stratosphere but dangerous on the ground because it is toxic to breathe.